By Joshua Saul
December 22, 2009
Leela Subba was born in Bhutan, but now he works at the Burger King on Northern Lights in Anchorage, cooking burgers and fries to help pay the rent on the four-bedroom Midtown apartment he shares with his family.
When Subba was a few years old, the Bhutanese government evicted his family and others of Nepalese ancestry from the country. Subba and his family lived in a refugee camp in Nepal for 18 years before they were allowed to emigrate to Anchorage.
"It was the longest journey that I ever traveled in my life," he said.
The Bhutanese are the newest of the waves of refugees Anchorage has welcomed in the six years since Catholic Social Services launched its Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services program.
In the past RAIS has helped settle Hmong refugees from the jungles of Southeast Asia and Sudanese refugees from the deserts of North Africa, but the newest wave of refugees hail from Bhutan, a country about half the size of Indiana nestled between China and India.
Since April, 50 to 60 Bhutanese refugees have moved to Anchorage.
"It's been incredible to watch them reclaim their culture because their suppression was so complete," RAIS director Karen Ferguson said.
The Bhutanese refugees living in Anchorage are "free cases," which means the U.S. Department of State settles them even though they don't have family already living here.
From 2003 until 2006 Catholic Social Services only handled family reunification refugees, settling evangelical Pentecostals from the former Soviet Union with their relatives in Delta Junction and reuniting a huge wave of Hmong refugees with their relatives in Anchorage.
After working with the Hmong, in 2006 Ferguson decided it was time to ask the State Department for free cases, which are more difficult than family reunification. The Bhutanese refugees currently living in Anchorage are all free cases, which means they landed here with no relatives to explain the bus schedules or help them look for a job.
In order for the State Department to send Bhutanese refugees to Anchorage, Ferguson had to demonstrate that the city had the lingual and cultural foundation to successfully settle them. In order to do that, Ferguson pointed to the fact that Anchorage has a Hindu temple as well as a relatively large population of Nepali speakers due to earlier waves of immigration from both Nepal and Tibet.
"I think it's been a pretty easy transition for them because they had a pretty good education in their refugee camps," said Christine Garbe, supervisor of ASD's English Language Learner Program. "Their English is amazing, and they seem very well educated."
The transition is much more difficult when the new students didn't attend class in the country they come from.
"If you get students who have never had any formal schooling before, they don't know how to hold a pencil," Garbe said.
Subba, the Bhutanese fry cook, studied English for 12 years in the Nepalese refugee camp, and out of the eight subjects he took every term, seven were taught in English. Now, his 13-year-old brother goes to Romig Middle School, and his 18-year-old sister is a student at West High School. Subba's family is fairly typical of Bhutanese refugees coming into Anchorage.
"They're a lot more westernized than our refugees coming from other countries," said Melissa Bartley, Catholic Social Services' volunteer manager.
Every Bhutanese refugee gets $425 from the State Department as a "welcome to Alaska," Ferguson said. Catholic Social Services also provides full social services for the refugees, including case workers to pick them up at the airport and help them apply for work. The agency also has money that can be used directly on behalf of a refugee, for things like bus passes or the fees necessary to get a driver's license.
One of the measures the State Department uses to determine whether a settlement of refugees is successful is to look at how many of the refugees have a job after six months. Drop below 70 percent employment, Ferguson said, and the State Department will think twice before sending more refugees.
"At this very second we're at 81 percent, so we do very well in free cases," Ferguson said.
Currently, Catholic Social Services is resettling more than 110 refugees every year. The vast majority of them are free cases, a vast difference from 2003 when all the agency did was family reunification.
It's a difficult life for a new refugee in Anchorage. Subba's father washes dishes at Spenard Roadhouse, and his mother has been ill ever since Subba's younger brother was born. Subba walks to work at Burger King, where he makes $7.50 an hour, or about $1,200 per month before taxes -- if he's able to work full-time. Subba prefers to work 40 hours a week, but some weeks he only gets 30. The family's monthly rent is $1,300.
Still, Subba likes it here, although he was very surprised to be settled in Alaska.
"It's good," he said. "People are good, but the climate is quite terrible."